Last week in 2012 – My Year in Books I revealed my six personal favourites. Today, for my final review of the year I’ve chosen one of the most memorable books I’ve read, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which took an entire decade to find a publisher before being released by New Directions in the USA in October 2011 and by And Other Stories, an independent not-for-private-profit publisher, a year later in the UK. I am one of their subscribers.
I was lucky to come to Lightning Rods with no knowledge of the premise – or the author. Helen DeWitt was born near Washington DC, grew up in South America, has several Oxford degrees and currently lives in Berlin. Her first novel The Last Samurai (2001) achieved critical acclaim and is by all accounts very different. When I read Lightning Rods I was extremely ambivalent about it and as it’s impossible to discuss without revealing the subject, I waited to see how others would go about it. Two months later, I have read many other reviews (which I don’t normally) and clearly, the cat’s out of the bag.
Stop reading now if you are easily offended. Helen DeWitt doesn’t pull any punches so I won’t either.
This is a short and quick read and doesn’t feel much like a novel, lacking some of the key components such as dimension, emotional depth and character development. That would normally be quite an indictment, but less so if you take this for what it is – a very clever and trenchant satire.
It’s a third person narrative and from the word Go we’re in the mindset of failed salesman Joe, a man in his early 30s. As the story opens he is spending all day in his trailer indulging in outlandish masturbatory fantasies, frustrated that pornography doesn’t cater to his rather specific requirements. He gets the idea of combining his professional aspirations and sexual tastes by providing a service to relieve the major problem (we’re told) of sexual harassment in the workplace caused by excess male libido. Initially, after much difficulty, he persuades a single employer to try it out.
Here we go…. Joe hires women who appear to be regular office workers but are paid extra to secretly double as ‘lightning rods’ to allow the release of this troublesome sexual tension. The disabled toilets separating the men’s and women’s facilities are modified allowing high-achieving male executives to have anonymous sex from behind with the unclothed lower half of a lightning rod’s body which is delivered through a customized hole in the wall. The man then returns refreshed to his desk and to the tasks in hand. Joe frequently compares this ‘physical outlet’ with using the toilet.
It takes a long time to set all this up and I found the first third or so of the book so degrading and offensive that I very nearly abandoned it. I eventually became slightly desensitized to it; very clever and subtle of the author to engineer such a response in the sceptical reader when the whole purpose of the book is to satirise the way almost anything, no matter how outrageous, can be normalized and become socially acceptable if couched in the right terms. Joe’s idea is scaleable. It takes off in a big way.
As early commentators were quick to observe, the genius of this book lies in its exposure of the power of language to achieve such ends. It would be impossible not to notice that Joe’s speech and thought patterns are half cliché, half marketing jargon, which from a reader’s perspective is 50% hilarious and 50% borderline unbearable. He truly believes his own hype. He walks the talk. You get the picture. It’s a brilliant send-up of the kind of American who wears a company T shirt on vacation and is really just waiting to find someone he can bore with his annual sales figures.
I have a strong interest in American language and culture and write (fiction) in both British and American English, so once my initial revulsion had waned I did find much of the second half very funny. There are some priceless comic moments when Joe manages to outwit the FBI and to convince the Christian Right that the Lightning Rod scheme is the lesser of two evils. There’s a completely ludicrous and very un-PC strand to the story involving a ‘dwarf’ named Ian.
Lightning Rods isn’t, as it may first appear, a satire on sexual or workplace politics. OK, so maybe it doesn’t set out to be either of those things, but I think it’s a cheap trick to take as a starting point such a controversial premise and fail to address – satirically or otherwise – the issues it raises and leaves hanging. The fact that the objectification of women and women’s sexual needs are more in the spotlight now than when the book was written only heightens this. For me, it wasn’t offset by the implication that men are primitive creatures incapable of getting through the working day without a quick fuck to keep them on the straight and narrow; neither was I at all sure what to make of Joe’s star lighting rods Renee and Lucille going on to become senior figures in the legal profession, achieving a level of success and education which wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t taken part. Er, it’s still prostitution. This smacks of the argument that women who appear in pornography are actually the ones exploiting men. I’m sure I’m not supposed to be thinking that, but all writers have to contend with the problem that authorial intention is just part of the equation and readers’ interpretations can’t be controlled.
In the end, I disliked and enjoyed it in equal measure. It is highly debatable in both senses, and I do think controversial books can be a good thing. I’ve told countless people about this one and watched their mouths fall open in disbelief. It would be fascinating to see how it would be received by a wider audience. Fortunately for And Other Stories, Helen DeWitt has dual US/UK nationality and they have made no secret of their intention to put this title forward for next year’s Man Booker Prize. The 2012 Prize was notable and slightly dull for the absence of the traditional controversy. If Lightning Rods gets anywhere, I don’t think that’ll be a problem…
Have you read Lightning Rods? Do you want to?
And Other Stories have gained a lot of attention this year as publishers of Deborah Levy’s Booker shortlisted novel Swimming Home and will be releasing a collection of her short fiction, Black Vodka, in February 2013. It’s one of several anthologies I’ll be looking at in a Short Fiction Special that month.